Friday, October 31, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 4)?

I think I speak for many record store employees when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys that are miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. But I can promise you, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here's a snapshot of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

Various - The Indestructible Beat of Soweto
This blew a lot of people’s minds when it came out, but mine wasn’t one of them. Rather than having my music-world shattered by the realization that there were vibrant, thriving pop music scenes elsewhere in the world, this was part of my growing up/learning process. Not literally this album, mind you, but those P. Simon/P. Gabriel/T. Heads records that sent people out looking for this album or others like it were ingrained into my teenaged pop music DNA the way that the Shangri-Las and Jan & Dean are part of the Ramones’ DNA. So I just accepted this as part of the pop norm when I found my indirect way into it via the Art of Noise working alongside Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. I’m telling you this not to tout some false sense of a superior position, but to note that it means that I came to this strictly as music, not a cultural phenomenon – Apartheid was over and Mandela freed by the time I actually picked this record up - and I still find it to be an absolutely superb example of how a compilation can work to summarize/anthologize a scene, a musical movement, a socio-political phenomenon, and also how easy it is for music in a language that the listener doesn’t understand to vault over any resistances and hit you right in the gut. It’s universal. And knowing the circumstances under which the music was made only pushes my admiration and enjoyment up to the nth degree. And if you’ve never heard anything like this, it may well blow your fucking mind.

Los LobosColossal Head
I’m at a loss to understand why this in considered a lesser Los Lobos album while Kiko is revered as a high point in their career. Kiko trades heavily on atmosphere (provided by engineer Tchad Blake and producer Mitchell Froom, whose slightly bent take on Americana suits these modern traditionalists (traditional modernists?) to a T) while this one refines the formula and offers up better songs to boot. There’s nothing on Kiko with half the energy of the ebullient “Mas Y Mas,” no lyric there with the weary depth of “Revolution” or that spills over with the joy of “Life Is Good.” And don’t get me wrong, I think Kiko is great, I just think this one’s better and more potent, like a concentrated reduction of everything that went into Kiko – experimentalism, ambience, energy, great playing. Why, it's just about as good as the Latin Playboys first album.

ParliamentMothership Connection
The album opens and closes with brilliance, but that middle stretch is totally pro forma P-Funk. Luckily, those three tracks are also the shortest (and also luckily, pro forma P-Funk has still got the goods for dancing), and I give G. Clinton et al props for keeping the theme of the album going, for making them of a piece with the better material that surrounds them, even if they’re lesser by comparison. And those four great once are pretty titanic slices of funk – starting with the stoned radio DJ rap of “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” and moving directly into the album’s central theme/title track “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” in which Clinton and co. suggest vaulting over Earth’s problems into the cosmos. Closing out the B-side (or the CD) they offer up one of the their most durable and popular grooves, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and the ridiculous “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples,” a trifle they probably slapped together in the studio that has proven to be inexhaustibly entertaining (to me at least) over the decades. They’re more consistent elsewhere in their catalog, but they’ve rarely ever peaked as high as the best of what they offer here.

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